Sometimes I scroll through the older images on my phone to remember what life used to be like before Covid and I suddenly remember that back in January (what feels like a lifetime ago) we took an epic trip to Japan.
The trip was both the result of a spontaneous impulse (“What if we go to Japan after Christmas?” Craig asked one day, last September) and then months of planning and replanning. Planning, because I researched all of the coolest restaurants and hotels and then replanning when I discovered that most of them were closed over New Year’s.
New Year’s, it turns out, is the most important holiday in Japan, when businesses shut down and people travel across the country to be with their families. There were moments, in planning this trip, that I thought I’d made a terrible mistake. Every single restaurant that people recommended in Tokyo — Den, Florilege, L’Effervesence, Narisawa, Sushi Sato (pretty much every one on Eater’s list) — was closed for the holiday; and every hotel that people recommended was also shut down for the week we’d be there.
There was a very real moment when I said to Craig: “We made a terrible mistake! Japan’s completely shut down when we’re going. Maybe we can get our money back?”
Craig pointed out that New Year’s was the only time we both knew for sure we’d be free to travel. (Who knew how right he’d be?) And since we already bought the tickets, why not just go ahead and go and let the trip unfold naturally, instead of trying to plan everything? Maybe it would be better to go at New Year’s; less crowded, more interesting.
Turns out, he was 100% correct. Going to Japan at New Year’s was not only totally fine, it was ideal. We barely encountered any tourists and in Kyoto, where tourists can overrun some of the more popular attractions, it felt like we had the whole place to ourselves.
We also had a real advantage when it came to our trip to Tokyo: Craig’s film school roommate, Genjiro, lives there and took us to some truly special restaurants; places I never would have encountered if I had planned the trip the way I originally intended. The first night we got there, Genjiro took us, with his friend Shiho, to a Yakitori restaurant called Daraku in the Shibuya district where we were staying.
Immediately upon sitting down, the chef — who’s in the previous picture and who grilled all of our food expertly and methodically over charcoal — asked us if we ate raw poultry. Coming from America, where I’m so squeamish about salmonella I marinate my chicken in Chlorox (Jk! don’t try that), we were nervous. But then he served us this ostrich tartare, which was beautiful to look at, as well as to eat.
Each course was better than the next…
…and then, Genjiro informed us, he had specially requested a dish called The Lantern. We watched the chef prepare what looked like golden orbs over the grill and then, when he held it up to us, it resembled a Japanese lantern.
Genjiro explained that they were chicken ovaries and possibly testicles (“boy parts and girl parts” was how he put it) and there was no denying how expertly these two elements had been fused together. It was the first time we’d ever eaten anything like it — almost like biting into a water balloon filled with egg yolks — and we’re not sure we’ll be rushing out to eat it again, but we’re so glad we tried it.
That night it was back to our hotel, The Hotel Koe, which I found after frantic, endless research. I knew I wanted to stay in Shibuya — a central, super lively area — but either the hotels I looked up were way too expensive (we’re talking over $1,000 a night) or kind of dismal seeming and sad.
The Hotel Koe, on the other hand, seemed bright and fun. There was a clothing store and a restaurant in the lobby and it seemed to be close to all the trains; plus the price was super reasonable (I want to say only $300 a night.) Only catch? Our room was going to be comically small. People left comments on the web about how small the room was. So I prepared Craig beforehand and this is what our room looked like:
It may look like a jail cell, but it was actually very comfortable and brilliantly designed. You can’t see, but to the right was an extremely modern bathroom with a Japanese toilet (we fell in love with Japanese toilets) and a spacious, almost luxurious, shower. The room was minimalist but had everything that we needed. Plus, breakfast was included and we enjoyed it every day in a little salon — a black, enclosed space — where we were doted over and every dish was a dreamy version of itself (see: the Eggs Benedict below).
That was the thing we quickly learned about Japan: nothing was taken for granted. Every dish, every cup of coffee, every cocktail (see my strawberry martini at Star Bar in Ginza below) was an opportunity for excellence and care. There was so much attention paid to even the minutest detail, it was hard not to fall in love with the place.
Even something like pizza — which we had at the legendary Seirinkan — gave Italy a run for its money, it was made with so much attention and care.
Of course, we had to have sushi. This is where I struggled the most: the majority of the “best” places were impossible to get into (one food writer told me that to go to her favorite sushi restaurant, you had to know the chef… which was kind of an obnoxious thing to say, but also true, I suppose) and so, after tons of research, I settled on Sushi Ginza Onodera — which, I later learned has outposts in New York and Beverly Hills (haha), but they fly the fish in from Japan so we were eating it at the source.
Turns out, this was a wonderful place to eat sushi in Tokyo. The room was bright and pristine and the chefs stood behind the counter, as you’d expect, but there was something especially theatrical here. The sushi was exemplary; there were the familiar bites — the fatty tuna, the mackerel — but then there were things like live shrimp that crawled right up to us to say hello before they were plunged into boiling water.
Other sushi moments:
As far as other Tokyo experiences, one absolute highlight was a bookstore called Tsutaya in Daikanyama which was an architectural marvel — like three bookstores in one — with a fascinating cookbook section (I loved seeing Kenji’s cookbook in Japanese) and a gorgeous bar/restaurant area where we stopped for some green tea and mochi.
I also became a loyal fan of a store in Shibuya called Loft, which is basically a department store but filled with all kinds of things you’ll actually want for your home: cooking utensils, posters, calendars (the calendar currently hanging in my kitchen is from there), and beautiful mugs, including these speckled mugs which I sadly broke in the sink when I got home; Craig reordered them online.
There was also the 365 Days Bakery, recommended to me by The Boy Who Bakes (Edd Kimber), which turned out to be the only place we could find open for lunch right around New Year’s. Eating perfect pastries in the middle of the day for sustenance is my kind of eating.
As much as we loved Tokyo, we loved Kyoto even more. We took the bullet train there (a whole ordeal involving prepaid tickets that ended up not being worthwhile because of something something, I don’t even remember) but upon arrival, we instantly fell in love. Our hotel, The Celestine Kyoto Gyon, was absolutely enchanting. Walking into the lobby, a dragon bit us on the head for good luck (a New Year’s custom).
Then we were escorted to the lobby, where we were presented with soothing green tea as our room was prepared.
The rooms here were spacious, simply adorned, and oh so comfortable (about 10X the size of our room in Tokyo). The hotel also had a public bath which we went to on the first night; you get completely naked, scrub yourself in a little stall, then sit in the very hot water. It was cleansing in every sense.
Our hotel also had the most wonderful Japanese breakfast buffet that had some of my favorite food of the trip.
Kyoto was positively humming with activity when we were there because of the New Year. There were all kinds of festivals going on around the temples with lots of food to sample. When we walked The Philosopher’s Path — an essential hike between two temples — we found a huge line of people waiting to say their prayers at the temple, and near it a woman serving cold soba noodles with smoked fish (it’s the lead picture in this post).
That Nishin Soba was truly extraordinarily — a bite I’ll never forget — the chewy noodles, the complex broth, the smokiness of the fish. It proved that all of the planning in the world couldn’t have generated this moment; it’s the kind of moment you have to open yourself up to without planning (how appropriate that it happened on The Philosopher’s Path).
Our first night there, we ate a traditional Kaiseki dinner at Gion Nanba. We sat in a little room and a woman, dressed in traditional Japanese garb, tended to us.
Every course was a mini masterpiece of elegance and precision. The first course came inside a ceramic swan (I believe it was soup).
But the prettiest course was this intricate array of small bites, each one more fascinating and delectable than the last.
The next day, we explored the Imperial Palace and the Nishiki Market where we had our next moment of culinary kismet. We stumbled upon a ramen shop, Gogyo, that serves burnt miso ramen. It was like regular ramen that spent a week at CBGBs in the 80s; this ramen was punk rock.
That night, we met up with our friends Jimmy and Raef — who were on a similar trip (we spent New Year’s with them in Tokyo) — at Tempura Endo Yasaka Gion.
This meal was a real mind-bender. Something as simple as a carrot was utterly transformed by tempura batter and a quick fry. Even the carrot greens became something special.
And this fried shrimp will probably be the best fried shrimp of my life.
The next day we took the bullet train back to Tokyo, I went back to Loft for some more knickknacks (bowls for eating oatmeal in the morning; two really cool spoons with a red handle) and then, on our last night, Genjiro took us to his favorite Izakaya, Iwao, in Shibuya with his friend Yucca.
We drank sake and ate casual sashimi…
…and gyozo pizza: like the inside of a dumpling on a crispy thin crust.
Plus these young sardines, called shirasu.
Before we knew it, we were at the airport the next day, flying back to L.A. and our beloved Winston. Who knew we’d also be flying back to a global pandemic and months and months of endless social distancing.
I share this with you now to remind you of how much world there still is out there and how exciting it’s going to be when we’re able to get back to it. I’m also sharing this as a reminder not to psych yourselves out of going on adventures; if I’d listened to that voice in my head that said “cancel the trip” none of this would’ve happened. That voice is an idiot.
Thanks to Genjiro for being such an exemplary host. We loved Japan and can’t wait to go back… on another New Year’s, clearly the best time to go.
Hotel: Hotel Koe (Shibuya)
Restaurants: Reservations recommended (it’s easiest to book through your hotel).
- Daraku in Shibuya (for Yakitori)
- Seirinkan (for pizza)
- Sushi Ginza Onodera
- 365 Days Bakery
- Iwao (Izakaya in Shibuya)
Other Tokyo Destinations:
- Tsutaya bookstore (Daikanyama T-site)
- Star Bar (in Ginza for cocktails)
- Loft Department Store (in Shibuya, for souvenirs)
Hotel: The Celestine Kyoto Gion
- Gion Nanba
- Gogyo Ramen (for the burnt miso)
- Tempura Endo Yasaka Gion
Helpful Japan Resources That I Used To Plan The Trip:
- The 38 Essential Tokyo Restaurants (Eater)
- The Eater Guide To Tokyo (Eater)
- Time Out Tokyo
- Tokyo: Places I Love (101 Cookbooks)
- 36 Hours in Kyoto (New York Times)
- Ed Droste’s Japan Travel Diary (Vogue)